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Finn’s through the Ages from Byblos to General Aoun

In Finn's Posts on June 20, 2009 at 4:49 am

Finn is slightly less hungover than I am (a little less sheik your bootie and champagne on her end) so she has offered to share our adventures visiting the world’s oldest city and major political leader, General Aoun.  Photos to come.  Internet incredibly slow here so uploads are laborious.

Today we recovered from our 2-4am nightclub festivities and travelled to Byblos to get a sense of history prior to indulging in the real-time politics in our hour with the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) party.

When I say history, I am speaking of perhaps the oldest inhabited city in the world.   The archaelogical sites alone were worth a week of exploration.  The relics on display included Neolithic 5th MILLENIUM  BC items, a temple from the 4th millenium  BC, Roman, Greek and Egyptian  sites as well as a Crusader era castle.  Byblos made its money not from the export of murex, but rather from the ancient cedar forests.  They were not cognizant of the time it takes to replenish their forests, and sowed the seeds of their own destruction.    Our visit to the archaelogical site had an interesting sound track… Friday is the holy day for muslims  and the humble Sunni mosque next door with the large loud speakers regaled us with the call to prayer, then 45 minutes of chanting music, then an hour or so of the sermon, which was sprinkled with only a few words that we recognized… America and Israel.  I wish we could have understood it all.

We re-entered the modern era as we went through five military checkpoints of increasing strength while climbing the hill to the home of General Michel Aoun, the 70+  year old leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, which represents the majority of the Christians.  The General gave us an hour of his time and answered our questions well and we got yet another angle on the complex political world of the Middle East. The General went to Washington in 2005 and outlined what he thought it would take to get Hezbollah  (Shia fighters trying to help the Palestinians get their land back in Israel among other things) to lay down their arms.  Washington didn’t believe it was possible, but when he achieved a negotiated agreement in February 2006, and formed a political partnership between Hezbollah and the FPM, they turned away from him and would not engage. We have a copy of the agreement , which upon first read makes great sense as a peaceful means of getting them to lay down their arms.   Biden and Hillary did not reverse the policy on their last trip here and continue to paint the General and his associates as the devil…

The General did very well in elections, growing his strength in Parliament significantly.  Hezbollah also won every seat in which they had a candidate, however the General’s allies lost enough of the Christian seats that he will not control the government even though he has the largest single block of seats.  We have heard from many sources about how those seats were lost… Vast amounts of money USD $700+ million was offered by the Saudis and spent by Harriri and others to protect the Sunni seats.  They flew in overseas Lebanese from all over the world (gratis) to vote and paid up to $2000 per vote locally in the contested districts. (Two thousand dollars does not always go far in the country–spent that much in a 10 minute jewelry stop….)   It will be interesting to see how the election observers report all of this.  There was no violence at the polling station, but there was much that happened in violation of the law.

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Finn’s Post from the Israeli-Lebanon Border

In Finn's Posts on June 18, 2009 at 6:26 am

Lebanese and UN Soldiers at Sheik Abbad Hill

Here’s a special post from our envoy and keen observer, Finn. Danica will be back with further escapades including tales of her purchase of a Palestinian refugee camp “berkini” and what the inside of a UN tank really looks like.

Remember the Warren Zevon song?  Look up the lyrics of this old song and it will scare you how long this has been going on…

Yesterday we traveled to the South.  At breakfast in a road side cafe in Sidon we gazed at the Chateau de la Mer and contemplated the meaning of being in a place that was first settled in 4000BC.  This Phoenecian city state has a proud and glorious past.  They made their big money in 500 BC or so processing murex a mollusk, now extinct, that produces the purple dye, which became all the rage for European royalty.  The Persians, Egyptians Greeks, Romans, and Crusaders all tromped through this beautiful place over a couple thousand years.    Time speeded up a little recently, and we added the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Syrians, Hezbollah, Shiite militias and others to the list in a few short years.

After breakfast we made our way to the Lebanese military intelligence headquarters to seek permission to travel father south toward the border with Israel (or Palestine, depending on the audience).  We struggled to find the right location and mistakenly pulled into the entrance to Ein el-Heilweh, the refuge camp that David had decided was too dangerous to enter the day before when some of us met a Fatah leader. (Turns out he was right since yesterday an Al Qaeda group was stopped at that same gate with a carload of bombs, and today a Fatah leader was killed there.)  We found the HQ and spent an uncomfortable hour loitering around the entrance where there were forts of sandbags and obstacles of concrete in the road.  The handful of armed guards were no consolation against what a few of us could imagine.  Our translator successfully argued our case and we headed out.

The roads and intersections were increasingly populated with small groups of Lebanese soldiers with occasional howitzers, tanks, piles of sandbags, and shelters that looked like kids had built them.  David found it interesting, since on previous visits the Lebanese Army did not dare to go to the South, and only Hezbollah fighters were active.  The land was pretty desolate–dry, rocky and dangerous.  Some estimates say that there are more than a million bomblets that remain unexploded in Southern Lebanon from the 2006 Israeli invasion.  It is simply too dangerous to till the land or even keep animals. We saw hundreds of large homes under construction on the hill sides–half built with no visible activity. as thought the owners had run out of money or decided it was a bad investment.   Everywhere there were green Hezbollah flags flying in the villages,   posters of their leaders, and photos of their “martyrs”, i.e. those who had died in the recent invastion. They are clearly working side by side with the Army, but in an invisible, non-uniformed way.  I couldn’t get anyone to clearly explain how they structure their organization and communication with the regular Army, but they had no qualms about flying their flags together.

We saw some Russian weapons and Kamaz trucks (made in  Russia) carrying groups of soldiers, and eventually as we reached Fatima gate, we saw the convoys of white tanks and trucks of the UN. The UN troops we met were all Indonesian and very friendly.  Later I met a UN leader who said that the Indonesians were much better here than the Europeans at gathering intelligence and simply working comfortably with the local people. The border was a ditch with a couple of chainlink and barbed wire fences–much less impressive than the Berlin Wall.  The Israelis had a well maintained road immediately next to the fence that could easily handle tanks and large trucks, then an observation post covered with camouflage netting just a few yards away.  I think the Lebanese soldiers and the Israelies were less than 50 feet apart and could easily hear each other speak.  On the other side of the fence Israel was lush and orderly.  There were settlements of several hundred small cookie cutter homes on the hillside and all of the land was irrigated and covered with orchards and tilled fields.  I can’t imagine the zeal that would drive a family to live so close to such a hostile border in those settlements.

We passed through the town of Ben Jaebel which was flattened during the invasion.  The center of town was totally under construction with the entire town square being rebuilt simultaneously several buidings deep on all sides.  The money came from Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as Hezbollah(Iran).  None of the organizations dared to give it to the Lebanese government for fear that it would all be stolen so they set up programs to dish it out themselves. Apparently the population of this town is 60% American Lebanese, most of whom are in Dearborn, MI!  I kept getting told that the unfinished mansions belonged to overseas Lebanese who wanted houses in their home village-clearly their pace of development is one adjusted to building for the next generation,  Since everything is made of cement now, it shouldn’t much matter how long it takes to finish.  These people have patience and memories that extend generations. .. and a deep love of the land specific to the village of their birth with which I cannot empathize.

Finn’s Report on the first day in Beirut

In Finn's Posts on June 13, 2009 at 2:47 pm

There is water in the camp but like everything it is completely and terrifyingly jerry rigged.It will  take us many days to process what we have seen today in Sabra and Chatilla, a refugee “camp” of 17,000 people, 50% of whom are Palestinian, the rest of whom are impoverished souls from Lebanon and Syria.  The PLO administers the area with little participation from the Lebanese government even though it is only a 30 minute ride from center of Beirut. The streets are unpaved, dusty, and narrow with 4-5 story buildings very close together.  Many of the buildings are riddled with bullet holes and a few were left as rubble from the time of the Israeli invasion and subsequent  massacre in 1982 (by Lebanese militias).  Of course,there has been further fighting in the area with other local militia and amongst factions in the PLO.   Today was a peaceful day with only boys shooting cap guns at each other to make us jump.   Work is scarce for the people of the area, healthcare is rudimentary, and higher education opportunities few and far between.  The residents are not allowed to seek work in Lebanon for the most part.  The hardest thing for us to understand was that after 3-4 generations away from the homeland, children were being taught to dream of returning to the village of their ancestors as their highest personal aspiration.  The PLO leaders with whom we spoke showed a variety of views.  On the one end of the spectrum was a pragmatic view that a two state solution could be made to work; on the other end was a vehement  insistence on a return to the 1948 land distribution even if it would  take another century of conflict.